ON the Rue de Rivoli, one building stands out amid the busy boutiques and department stores. Inside a colorful interior, the place buzzes with shoppers and tourists — and young people covered in paint.
Previously owned by the Crédit Lyonnais bank and then abandoned, the six-story, mid-19th-century Haussmann era building (59, rue de Rivoli, First Arrondissement; no phone; 59rivoli.org) was taken over by a group of young rebellious artists in 1999. Despite or possibly because of its illegal status, tourists soon came flowing in to see their work.
In 2006, as part of a citywide effort to legitimize popular but technically illegal art venues, the space was bought, closed and renovated by the Paris city hall for 10 million euros (about $12.1 million). It reopened in September 2009, and today serves as studio space for 32 resident artists. It is also the site of biweekly exhibitions of art solicited on its Web site.
All over town, similar spaces are being bought and renovated to comply with safety regulations. After that, a specially tailored agreement designed by the city allows selected squatters to stay in exchange for a minimal rent — as low as 1 euro a day — and the promise of continuous work that the public can access.
“Every artist dreams of moving to Paris,” said Christophe Girard, the city’s deputy mayor for culture. Combined with high rents, this Bohemian drive has produced decades of squats, from Picasso’s Bateau-Lavoir to Hôpital Éphémère, which was taken over by artists in the ’80s and ’90s. “This doesn’t mean that every squat is wonderful, but some obviously become part of a city heritage and must be preserved,” Mr. Girard said.
Les Frigos (Les Frigos, 19, rue des Frigos; 33-1-44-23-76-20, 13th Arrondissement; les-frigos.com) — “the refrigerators” — a 43,000-square-foot frozen storage depot, was bought by the city in 2004. Today, about 200 artists live and work there. Although visitors are officially welcome only on designated days, it’s usually fine to show up and ask a resident for a tour. (This is a general rule for squat hopping in Paris: some of these places may look forbidding, but a wink and a smile can help to schmooze your way in.)
“Once a squat gets renovated, the law stipulates that you are not allowed to use the place as living premises, just use it as work space,” said Julien de Casabianca, the founder of Le Laboratoire de Création (111, rue St.-Honoré, First Arrondissement; 33-1-40-26-18-95; laboratoiredelacreation.org), a renovated squat on an elegant stretch of rue St.-Honoré. “Of course, no one ever lives there officially, but the reality is often quite different,” he said. “Squatting, legalized or not, is a lifestyle.”
One of the last remaining yet-to-be-legalized squats is La Miroiterie (88, rue de Menilmontant, 20th Arrondissement; no phone; lamiroit.free.fr), a concert, screening and art venue. It is rumored to be closing soon despite intense efforts to make it an official site.
Either way, organizers are hoping that the trend toward legitimization continues. “Maybe the government will rethink the idea of squatting,” Mr. de Casabianca said. “They expect men with mohawks and dogs, and instead they find us, with short hair and cats.”